Painting the Dakota

Guest blogger: Chong Xiong, Hazel Park Preparatory Academy

I have been teaching Minnesota Studies for 6th graders for three years now. As a transplant from Wisconsin, I knew very little about the Native groups of Minnesota. It is a learning experience for my students and myself as we go through each unit and chapter.

We use the Northern Lights textbook and were finally able to have the iPad apps this year. The apps have allowed more interactions between the text and students, which has been great for the students who struggle to read. I especially like the artwork features within the app itself. I have tired incorporating artwork into my class, especially using it with our Dakota/Ojibwe unit.

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This year I asked my students to study artwork by Seth Eastman. The students were able to see Seth Eastman’s work in the textbook itself, and with the book, Painting the Dakota Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling by Marybeth Lorbiecki. When I started teaching, I was lucky enough to find a whole stack of these books in the school. The book itself has a is a higher reading level than most of my 6th graders can comprehend, but it has a lot of Seth Eastman’s drawings of the Dakota and scenes of Minnesota. Students were asked to pick a painting that interested them and taking notes about it. Just simple observations: who was in the painting, what it was, and what it showed us today about Dakota life. As we looked through Seth Eastman’s work, we also talked and discussed the idea of perspective, and point of view of the artist himself, being white, drawing natives. This concept was hard for my students to understand at first, so I compared it using the types of students we have in our school (African Americans/Asians).

During our cohort trip to Traverse des Sioux in St. Peter, I was surprised to learn about the perspectives of the paintings by Millet and Mayer depicting the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. The activity that we did helped me focus more on my own lesson using Seth Eastman’s paintings. It also made me wonder if there were other sources of Native art of the Dakota at this time or present. We also address this issue when we watch the PBS documentary, “Seth Eastman, Painting the Dakota.” The students were able to have a better understanding of who Seth Eastman was and why he painted the Dakota.

For their final assessment, the students were asked to make their own paintings like Seth Eastman’s. The students enjoyed looking at the artwork and love drawing. They were asked to produce a Seth Eastman-like artwork, displaying anything of the landscape, people, or wildlife. They were not allowed to just copy Seth Eastman’s paintings itself. Most understood this requirement and drew a variety of landscapes, sceneries and Dakota people. It was a very fun end-of-unit assessment that the students enjoy doing. I also had a great time seeing their drawings and displayed them outside my classroom for the whole school to see.

I would definitely continue using this project in my unit but would like to find a Native perspective of art to add into this project. I’m hoping this cohort will provide me with some resources that can be incorporated into my lessons and allow for a wider range of work for students to analyze and view.

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